Usually there are more dogs around the bus stops and stores in Anton, but this was a rainy Saturday afternoon and there were not a lot of shoppers out either. So slimmer pickings for the dogs who have regular homes but come to mooch treats from folks around the stores near the highway. This dog just came in from the rain to catch a few winks at the piquera until the storm passed. Photo by Eric Jackson, waiting in the bus to go back to El Bajito.
Getting groceries in a conflicted time
A by Eric Jackson
It’s a tight budget weekend, down to the coin stash and with a few gaps to fill in order to get the livestock fed. The dogs are easier, but cats are more demanding. I can dig up some yucca from the back yard, season it with chicken and achiote powder and the dog will eat it. The cats will not.
I set out in the rain. There was a tropical storm on the way and it would get worse. I had an umbrella in my chacara, but for the time being I left it there. Colonense as I was raised, a few drop just means “viene el agua” and as I had my Detroit Tigers hat on I could be reasonably assured that I would not catch The Brain Fever from the rain.
Plan A was to get some michita bread, lonja (slab bacon), some cheap meat, canned ground sardines and eggs. Rice, a bit of crunchy cat food, a bit of powdered milk and packages of various flavoring I had. Being a lean weekend, no cheese curls for the cats on this shopping run.
One of the early agreements in the talks between protesters and the government in Penonome was an expansion of the number of food staples subject to price controls. The deal is not to take this out of the hide of Panamanian farmers. one of the mechanisms was to eliminate the import duties on pork bellies so that the supermarkets — or wholesalers — would not have to sell lonja at a loss. But Panama has pig farmers, too, who are not thrilled about the loss of their protective tariff.
Enforcement of the price controls is under the aegis of the Consumers Protection and Defense of Competition Authority (ACODECO), which already had the job of enforcing the price limits on a few basic staples that remained controlled after a long process of whittling down a much longer list that we used to have here.
The Chamber of Commerce has always railed against any sort of price controls, and they’re talking rebellion against the new ones. As in, they were not at the table, they don’t recognized the presidential decree as legitimate and they vow to fight it. Meanwhile, some of these changes can’t be made at the snap of the fingers. That the food prices of the purportedly controlled items were going up or staying the same in many venues led the indigenous delegation to walk out of the talks, after Carlos Motta, head of the Agricultural Marketing Institute (IMA), walked out in the wake of an argument with labor leaders about the subject. (He apologized and came back.)
(As I work on an Internet connection whose price nearly doubled without prior notice and without a hearing before the ASEP public utilities authority, and as small media working in the informal sector never get consulted about anything, I am underwhelmed by the Chamber’s sense of justice).
Nito has no magic price wand, but he has sent out ACODECO inspectors to hand out fines over ignored price controls. Plus, to bring the indigenous delegation back — but not as a special favor, but because the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca is especially poor and especially got no relief from the agreed controls — the government agreed to set up IMA retail and wholesale distribution outlets in each of the semi-autonomous comarca’s nine districts.
What about Anton? This was a necessarily small grocery run, but shopping as I do at several of the places along the Pan-American Highway.
The bakery was fine about the price of michita bread. I got a dozen eggs as a penny lower than what had been the price a month ago, but found none of price controlled sardines at that place, and no lonja. At another supermarket, no lonja and the price of chicken hot dogs, one of the items to be newly controlled, was up. Another cheap favorite for both dogs and cats, went up from 79 to 99 cents a pound last week. An addition that the dogs like with the rice, lentils, are on the price control list but there weren’t any at that price anywhere that I looked. At a third place, also no lonja, and also no price-controlled sardines. I got a couple of cans of fish at the slightly higher price.
The biggest scandal with regard to the price controls? Arroz de primera — rice with few broken grains, so as to be “Grade A” — is still in short supply. Turned out that just after the price controls, the millers started packaging arroz de segunda (inferior quality) in arroz de primera bags. ACODECO swept down on those packagers and the stores carrying the misbranded rice. They didn’t put anyone out of business but misbranded stuff was taken out of circulation and the better white rice has since been in short supply in most of the stores. (Me? I’m a hippie. I’ll by white rice when I need to but both me and the dogs prefer brown rice — arroz integral — and obtain it at a higher price than the white stuff.)
Do I want to point a finger and assign blame? I do have certain suspicions about contrived shortages, but then these are hard times and people are buying up the cheaper stuff because that’s what we can afford. Plus, when price controls are imposed on things that are in the chain of commerce, the discount to the consumer can’t reasonably be expected to be instantaneous.
While shopping the storm front moved through in its full force. This dog at the top of the page found shelter at one of the little local bus terminals and slept it off. On the ride home from Anton, there were trees blown over onto the highway, then on the road to the neighborhood where I live, which goes all the way to Altos de La Estancia and El Valle. Mostly it was teak trees that fell, shallow rooted and not endemic to Panama as they are.
At home I was greeted by animals anxious for dinner. It was French toast with grated sardines and shrimp powder, all mixed and cooked together, for the cats. They inhaled it. For the dogs it was white rice with chicken dogs, cooked with in chicken and achiote powder, which they in their turn gobbled up. Substandard but everyone got fed.
The storm brought a lot of water onto each of my porches, but no damage at a glance. However, it brought me “free” medicine — a big fresh cecropia (guarumo) leaf was blown onto my back porch.
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